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5.4: Shinto Shrines and Festivals

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    Shinto Shrines

    Shinto shrines, or jinja , are the sacred locations of one or more kami, and there are some 80,000 in Japan. Certain natural features and mountains may also be considered shrines. Early shrines were merely rock altars on which offerings were presented. Then, buildings were constructed around such altars, often copying the architecture of thatched rice storehouses. From the Nara period in the 8th century CE temple design was influenced by Chinese architecture – upturned gables, and a prodigious use of red paint and decorative elements. Most shrines are built using Hinoki Cypress.

    Shrines are easily identified by the presence of a torii or ” sacred gateway .” The simplest are merely two upright posts with two longer crossbars and they symbolically separate the sacred space of the shrine from the external world. These gates are often festooned with gohei , twin paper or metal strips each ripped in four places and symbolizing the kami’s presence.

    A shrine is managed by a head priest ( guji ) and priests ( kannushi ), or in the case of smaller shrines, by a member of the shrine elders committee, the sodai. The local community supports the shrine financially. Finally, private households may have an ancestor shrine or kamidana , which contains the names of the family members who have passed away and honors the ancestral kami. (27)

    Features of Shrines

    The typical Shinto shrine complex or jinja includes some or all of the following common architectural features, depending on its size and importance: (27)


    The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the largest shrine. It is famous for the large number of red gates (torii) at the site. Further described in text.
    Figure 5-4 : Torii, Fushimi Inari Shrine by James Blake Wiener is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 .

    Torii are sacred gateways, which symbolically separate the sacred space of the shrine from the external world. The simplest and most common are merely two upright posts with two longer crossbars ( kasagi and nuki ), known as the myojin torii , but there are many variations, such as the ornate ryobu torii , which usually stand in water, and miwa torii , which has a triple gate. Torii are usually made of wood but they can also be of stone, steel, copper, or concrete. Many torii are painted red, and they are often festooned with gohei , twin paper, cloth or metal strips each ripped in four places symbolizing the kami’s presence. (34)


    A romon is a large gate building, which marks the entrance to the main shrine. From the outside, it seems to have two stories, especially when there is a small balcony running around the building, but actually, it has only one. The central entrance is flanked by covered bays, which contain guardian figure statues known as zuijin . (34)


    The honden or shrine’s main hall contains an image or manifestation of the particular kami or spirit worshipped there, thegoshintai . The interior is divided into two parts: the naijin or inner sanctuary and the gejin or outer sanctuary. The naijincontains the goshintai and is almost always closed to anyone except the shrine’s chief priest and even he may not have actually seen the goshintai . Sometimes the doors of the naijin may be opened on special occasions, such as shrine anniversaries. Around the honden is a fence, the tamagaki , which limits the sacred area of typically white gravel or sand and it may even limit the view of the honden from outside. (34)


    A 19th century drawing of the Shinto shrine complex at Izumo-taisha, Japan.
    Figure 5-5: Izumo-taisha Layout by Unknown Artist resides in the Public Domain .

    The haiden or oratory hall is for ceremonies and worship and is usually the most impressive building at the shrine. It may stand-alone or be connected to the honden by a short covered corridor. (34)


    The heiden , located between the honden and the haiden , is a building (or simply part of a covered corridor) used for prayers and making offerings ( heihaku ). The term shaden refers to the honden, haiden, and heiden, all together . (34)

    Important Shinto Shrines

    Ise Grand Shrine by Fg2 resides in the Public Domain .

    The most important Shinto shrine is the Ise Grand Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu with a secondary shrine to the harvest goddess Toyouke. Beginning in the 8th century CE, a tradition arose of rebuilding exactly the shrine of Amaterasu at Ise every 20 years to preserve its vitality. The broken-down material of the old temple is carefully stored and transported to other shrines where it is incorporated into their walls.

    The second most important shrine is that of Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha. These two are the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. Besides the most famous shrines, every local community had and still has small shrines dedicated to their particular kami spirits. Even modern city buildings can have a small Shinto shrine on their roof. Some shrines are even portable. Known asmikoshi , they can be moved so that ceremonies can be held at places of great natural beauty such as waterfalls. (27)

    Worship & Festivals

    The sanctity of shrines means that worshippers must cleanse themselves ( oharai ) before entering them, commonly by washing their hands and mouth with water. Then, when ready to enter, they make a small money offering, ring a small bell or clap their hands twice to alert the kami and then bow while saying their prayer. A final clap indicates the end of the prayer. It is also possible to request a priest to offer one’s prayer. Small offerings might include a bowl of sake (rice wine), rice, and vegetables.

    As many shrines are in places of natural beauty such as mountains, visiting these shrines is seen as an act of pilgrimage,Mt. Fuji being the most famous example. Believers sometimes wear Omamori , too, which are small, embroidered sachets containing prayers to guarantee the person’s well-being. As Shinto has no particular view on the afterlife, Shinto cemeteries are rare. Most followers are cremated and interred in Buddhist cemeteries.

    The calendar is punctuated by religious festivals to honor particular kami. During these events, portable shrines may be taken to sites linked to a kami, or there are parades of colorful floats, and worshippers sometimes dress to impersonate certain divine figures.

    Amongst the most important annual festivals are the three-day Shogatsu Matsuri or Japanese New Year festival, the Obon Buddhist celebration of the dead returning to the ancestral home, which includes many Shinto rituals, and the annual local matsuri when a shrine is transported around the local community to purify it and ensure its future well-being. (27)

    Contributors and Attributions

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    This page titled 5.4: Shinto Shrines and Festivals is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lumen Learning.

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